Susie was born two years before my mom, and as her big sister, always considered herself both my mom’s boss, as well as protector. As a result, the two of them fought frequently, but loved each other unfailingly. Bright, strongly opinionated, outspoken, well read and well informed, she was either your best friend or sworn enemy. Once she was on your side, her loyalty was unswerving. God help you if you got on her bad side. She could be incredibly sweet, considerate and caring, or acerbic, scornful, haughty and disdainful. She definitely did not suffer fools gladly, and dispersed her opinions freely. Hers was not the personality to have in a totalitarian country like Hungary under Communism.
When she was in her late teens, she contracted rheumatic fever, and the feared complication of rheumatic carditis with mitral valve disease. This illness would remain one of the defining characteristics of her life. It left her with chronic shortness of breath with even mild physical exertion, so among other things, she was never able to have children. It also left her with a lifelong love-hate relationship with the medical profession. She read everything she could get her hands on regarding her illness, and was not shy in sharing her opinions regarding her care or the perceived shortcomings of her physicians. She would adjust the dose of her own medications as she saw fit, and cowed most of her physicians in allowing her to do as she pleased regarding her treatment. This was way before the time of shared patient involvement.
Since she had no children of her own, I became hers immediately by adoption, regardless how I (or my mother) felt about this status. Since my mother was working, and she couldn’t work with her illness, I spent a lot of my early life in her company. She taught me how to read before I turned four (as mentioned in my earlier post on polio) and to play chess. By the time I turned seven, she was very proud that I could beat her without her letting me do so. She also taught me how to argue, to use literature to support my points of view, and how not to be a “phony”, one of the greatest sins in her eyes. She taught me a lot about Hungary’s history, and European history, and encouraged me to always question things that I was told, either by her, or someone else. In many ways, she was more influential in my education than any teacher I’ve had before or since. (I have to hope she’s somehow aware of this belated acknowledgement.)
Prior to the start of World War II, she was engaged to a young man whom she loved madly, and who sadly was killed in the conflict. After the war, she married my Uncle Fred. The only son of a Hungarian woman and Austrian man, Fred was educated as an electrical engineer at the University of Heidelberg, and was a brilliant man. He also suffered from severe deformities of his spine which left him with a prominent hunchback. Almost ten years her senior, he loved her greatly, but understood that their marriage was for her more one of convenience and need. I enjoyed his company, as he liked to perform “experiments” for me, teaching me about things like fulcrums, friction, electromagnetism, and solar energy. He had a wonderful way of making abstract things easy to understand, and unlike my mercurial aunt, he was always a calm presence in a world filled with turmoil.
In the early 1950’s, a surgeon in London developed a technique for stretching scarred mitral valves open again. My aunt read about this procedure, and decided this was the treatment she needed. If she had this surgery, she felt could stop her digitalis and diuretics, and resume a normal life. At this point in history, no one was allowed to leave Hungary, but this did not dissuade her from trying. She wrote letters to the people in government, to the Swiss Red Cross, to Secretary General of the United Nations, and even to the Pope. She demanded their intercession in allowing her to go to England to have her lifesaving operation.
We were sure she was going to get herself arrested, thrown in jail, possibly killed. (Not unlikely outcomes for speaking your mind under Stalin’s rule.) When she initially had her request for a visa denied, she started a new round of letters, including letters to the editors of Western newspapers. We were sure that not only was she going to get herself killed, but possibly some of us as well.
I suppose the powers that be decided that getting her out of the country was easier and potentially less diplomatically fraught than getting rid of her. They issued her a visa to travel to London on the proviso that she go alone, unaccompanied by any family. Soon after arriving in London, she had an appointment with the famous heart surgeon, who informed her that yes, she had mitral stenosis, but it wasn’t yet bad enough to warrant the risk of surgery. He adjusted her medications (on which she was overdosing herself) and sent her on her way. Now free, she decided that there was no way she would return to live under Communism, and moved to Paris, the city which remained her greatest love for the rest of her life. There, through some old contacts of her father, she found employment as a translator (she spoke five languages) as well as an apartment in the 7th. Her landlady, Madame Moliere, soon became her friend and supporter in all things political. She apologized to us for not coming back to Hungary, and expressed her desire for us to come and join her. Mail was closely censored, and we were always afraid that her rash words would bring some retaliation against us by the government, but they never did. She would send my mother packages of French luxury beauty products on which we had to pay high duty, but which were worth more than gold behind the Iron Curtain.
After my father and I escaped Hungary to Austria during the 1956 Revolution, we had the opportunity to apply for citizenship in Switzerland, which my father very much wanted. However, my aunt took it in her head that we’d be better off in the USA, and somehow intervened to sabotage our Swiss move, forcing my father to come to the States instead. She and my father had a distant relationship at best, and this did nothing to improve that situation.
Shortly after my mother and grandmother left Hungary with forged passports, her husband Fred was able to leave as well, taking an engineering job in Stockholm, Sweden. My aunt joined him there, regretfully leaving Paris behind. The years she lived in Paris remained the high point of her life, and she never stopped talking about it. She was the worst Francophile I ever met; I can only wish she had managed to stay alive long enough to see Peter settled and living happily there. The Swedish winters didn’t agree with her, and once my mom was in the States, she and Fred moved to Chicago as well. He became the chief engineer for product development for the Sunbeam Corporation, holding a number of patents, including for their electric shaver, coffee machine, and toaster oven. While we vacationed together, spent most of our free time together, we never had the close bond that I enjoyed as a young boy. I suspect this was no fault of theirs, but rather the callowness of my youth, and other competing interests.
Fred died of a stroke in his seventies, but by then I had moved away to medical school. Ironically, she died of complications of her heart disease, for which surgery was strongly recommended both by her doctors as well as myself. However, she became convinced that the operation would kill her, and refused to have it! We went through a period of several years prior to that point when she and I were not speaking to each other, based on our strong disagreement on how my mother’s Crohn’s disease should be treated. I’m happy to say, we were able to reconcile prior to her death, and she had a chance to see my son before she passed on.